Letter to Greta Thunberg: the
impact of the Internet on global problems awareness
After centuries of too many white people not seeing racism, smartphones have
made it undeniably visible. Without smartphones, we probably would not know
about the murder of George Floyd. Without social media, your school strike
might not have started an international movement.
I write this letter to you—and to everyone committed to reducing climate
change and ecological harms. Without the Internet, I doubt that it would reach
Let me introduce myself. I am a white, U.S. American writer and
grandmother. I live in New Mexico. In the house that my husband and I rent, I
have a room for writing. We have food in our refrigerator, a vegetable garden,
a computer, a telephone and a washing machine. I have my own car and several
pairs of shoes. I consider myself privileged. Every day, I notice that these
conveniences might not last. Two forest fires just started nearby, and so the
air has become very smoky. I know people who have evacuated their homes.
In 1997, I learned Section 704 of the 1996 U.S. Telecommunications Act.
It states that no environmental concern may interfere with the placement of a
cellular antenna. (Here, “environmental” includes public health.) Numerous
countries enacted similar laws, which essentially trump laws of nature.
Learning about Section 704 got me wondering what’s behind our screens. I began
researching technology’s impacts on wildlife and public health. I learned about
the Internet’s energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, extraction demands, toxic
waste and worker hazards. I am still learning. I am still wondering how to make
the Internet’s footprint visible, and how to reduce it.
I believe that if we are not aware of our contribution to a problem,
then we can’t be part of the solution. This applies to the Internet’s
In these letters, I will share what I’ve learned about the Internet’s
footprint, name unanswered questions and potential solutions. I will report on
the environmental impacts of manufacturing, operating and discarding or
recycling electronic devices; the environmental impacts of manufacturing and
discarding hybrid and electric vehicles; the environmental impacts of
manufacturing and disposing of solar and wind powered systems. I will write
about the energy demands and greenhouse gas emissions of 5G, the fifth
generation of wireless infrastructure. I will co-author some letters with engineers
who study these issues.
Greta, I dream that every Internet user will learn about the
cradle-to-grave chain of events of one substance in their device. I will
probably often repeat that every smartphone has 1000+ substances, each with its
own energy-intensive, greenhouse gas emitting, toxic waste emitting supply
chain. I dream that each of us will learn about the data storage centers in our
neighborhoods, and the cellular sites within a mile of our home.
I have no gizmo to endorse. I do want other Internet users to join me in
finding ways to reduce our footprint. I admit that being alone with this
information can make me crazy.
I am grateful to this website for posting this letter. I am grateful to
everyone who learns about the Internet’s footprint and commits to reducing
Let me say a bit more about the Internet, the largest thing that
humanity has built. In order to tweet, text, make a video, stream a video, post
on social media, research online, do a GPS search, purchase anything online,
attend a Zoom meeting (do any online activity), you need three things: a
device, internationally deployed access networks, and data storage.
Producing every device (tablet, smartphone, desktop, laptop, iWatch,
etc.) starts with design (by energy-intensive robots) and extraction of ores.
To “reduce” metals from their ores, the ores need smelting and/or refining.
Smelting and refining depend on CO2 emitting electric plants fueled
by coal, fracked gas, nuclear power and/or hydro power. In most cases,
renewables cannot power smelting or refining, since smelters need to be kept at
1800 °F for six or seven years at a time. Access networks provide cellular
sites that receive and transmit signals between mobile devices. Access networks
depend on electricity, batteries, fiber optic cables, antennas, satellites and
Data storage centers depend on computers and cooling systems (air
conditioning and swamp coolers that use water and electricity).
Every item has a supply chain that depends on shipping between stations.
Shipping depends on airports and airplanes, roadways and trucks, railways and
trains, shipping lanes and ships.
Every electronic device and infrastructure part reach the day when it is
no longer usable. It becomes e-waste. Recycling electronics is worthwhile; and,
of course, recycling also demands energy and generates toxins and greenhouse
Indeed, each of the Internet’s energy-guzzling, toxic-waste and
greenhouse-gas emitting operations depends on all of the others. They
interconnect by power lines, natural gas pipe lines, cargo ships, telecom
access networks and data storage centers to form one gigantic global
Greta, I recognize that without Internet access, anyone’s educational,
economic and social opportunities are extremely limited. I believe in universal
access—so that the three billion people not yet online will have opportunities
like you and I have. I also question how we can achieve universal access while
simultaneously reducing energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, extraction of
rare earths and other ores. Call this an unanswered question. Unless we discuss
it, we won’t discover solutions.
Thank you for reading this letter. Thank you for getting informed about
the Internet’s footprint.
Katie, 23 September 2020
*Katie Singer writes about
technology and nature. “An Electronic Silent Spring” is her most
recent book. In 2018, she spoke about the Internet’s footprint at the United
Nations. She dreams that every smartphone user knows the supply chain of one
substance (of 1000+) in every smartphone. She has given lectures and workshops
about reducing our digital footprint, the health and environmental impacts of
exposure to electromagnetic radiation from wireless technologies, natural
family planning, and teaching writing at universities, community centers and
conferences, including in Old Order Amish communities, in Guatemala and Brazil,
and at South Boston High School.